Infrastructure and livelihoods along China's Belt and Road: The case of coffee farming in Shan State, Myanmar

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences


Throughout much of the Global South, expanding infrastructure and agrarian change are remaking the political ecologies of communities on the margins. Transformational development projects-"distance-demolishing technologies'' of the state (Scott, 2009)-are pushing these groups to redefine their relationships to livelihoods and natural resources. Communities across the Global South are navigating the challenges of increasing material affluence and increasing material vulnerability. Infrastructure, through networks like China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is effectively creating new frontiers of capitalism-sites where states' political-economic ideals come into contention with local resource use patterns and livelihoods (Eilenberg, 2014; Pinkaew, 2012; Woods, 2011).

To understand these conflicts at the frontiers of capitalism, there is a need for research into the livelihood choices of individuals and communities, and how they articulate new positionalities in discourses of development and power. Since Conway and Chambers' foundational study of livelihoods (1992), researchers have used the sustainable livelihoods approach to develop an understanding of the local and the individual; critiques have expanded this to analyze structures and processes-of globalization, industrialization, colonialism, state expansion and economic integration (de Haan, 2012; Scoones, 2009). There is now a need for multi-scalar and deeper research into local "ways of operating" at the intersection of infrastructures and livelihoods-into procedures of everyday creativity and "the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of 'discipline'" (de Certeau, 1984; Carney and Watts, 1990).

Proposed research project

The dynamics of changing livelihoods amid a landscape of novel infrastructure are exemplified in Myanmar's Shan State, an upland ethnic area where many groups have historically contested state power and development projects under China's BRI are altering state-margin relations in new ways. One livelihood transition that illustrates shifting state-margin relations is the emergence of high-value coffee farming, pushed by development actors, NGOs and the Myanmar government over the last two decades as an alternative to widespread opium farming (Winrock, 2017).

Livelihoods in Shan State have long reflected a tenuous relationship to state power through traditional swidden agriculture and opium cultivation (McCoy, 2003; Meehan, 2011; Scott, 2009). While efforts to support coffee farming have failed to supplant opium (Meehan, 2020), many communities in Shan State are now turning towards high-value coffee.

I propose to study choices, experiences and understandings of shifting livelihoods via these coffee farming communities in Shan State. Using immersive participant observation, interviewing and mapping methodologies, I propose to: (i) identify factors that lead households to coffee farming; (ii) explore the meaning of these changes for the diverse ethnic minority individuals, households and communities in Shan State; (iii) study how large-scale infrastructure alters livelihoods through economic and state integration; and (iv) investigate changes in everyday state-margin relations. In-depth, ethnographic methodologies will help expand present understanding of how local communities navigate impacts of agrarian and livelihood change. This project will study local choices and understandings to advance research on what are essentially global phenomena: the expansion of infrastructure and the remaking of our relationships to natural resources and livelihoods. This study of livelihood changes along China's BRI informs an understanding of how state-margin relations are shifting at new "frontiers of capitalism".


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2575860 Studentship ES/P000630/1 30/09/2021 30/03/2026 Skylar Lindsay